Atholl Anderson: 'Where did Maori come from?'

Atholl Anderson at home in Blenheim with his prize-winning book, Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History.
Scott Hammond

Atholl Anderson at home in Blenheim with his prize-winning book, Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History.

We know a lot about early Maori history but there is still much more to learn, Atholl Anderson tells PHILIP MATTHEWS. 

Pseudo-history makes headlines. Did the Spanish get here first, or the Chinese or even the Celts? Archaeologist and author Atholl Anderson, 73, chuckles down the line from Blenheim. All that stuff is crazy. True history is much more interesting.

Anderson has devoted his working life to some big and still unsolved questions. His academic career included long stretches at the University of Otago and the Australian National University in Canberra, where he is emeritus professor. He has a substantial list of publications, visiting fellowships and honours, including Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Archaeology and Anthropology. A book he co-authored, Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, won the Illustrated Non-fiction prize at the Ockham Book Awards in Auckland this month. 

Rangitane iwi members repatriate remains of early New Zealand settlers at Wairau Bar in April 2016.

Rangitane iwi members repatriate remains of early New Zealand settlers at Wairau Bar in April 2016.

He wrote it with Aroha Harris and Dame Judith Binney, "a very distinguished historian who sadly died before she was able to write very much, unfortunately," he says. She died in 2011. The book took seven years, Anderson told the audience in Auckland. 

Your Weekend reviewer Morgan Godfery​ called it "a landmark book … a taonga for all New Zealanders". It won the Royal Society of New Zealand 2015 Science Book Prize a year ago but the praise keeps on coming. The Ockham win was a victory lap: "A collaboration of three outstanding authors, Tangata Whenua is scholarship at its finest," said Illustrated Non-fiction category convenor Jane Connor on behalf of the judges.

* Most important archaeological site in New Zealand continues to lure researchers to Wairau Bar, Marlborough
* Blenheim academic honoured
* Moriori settlement study receives funding

Adzes from Wairau Bar on display at the Marlborough Museum in 2011.

Adzes from Wairau Bar on display at the Marlborough Museum in 2011.

Publishers Bridget Williams Books have issued a condensed version of Tangata Whenua's early sections on the prehistory of Maori and migration to New Zealand as The First Migration: Maori Origins 3000BC-AD1450 in its pocket-sized BWB Texts series. Anderson squeezes nearly 4500 years into 112 small pages.

Yes, it is all quite dense. Movements across space and time are tracked by DNA science, language analysis, oral history traditions and the good old-fashioned digging of objects from the ground. Climate science enters the picture too. 

But there are still plenty of gaps in the first 200 or so years of Maori in New Zealand. There is agreement that they arrived here in the mid-late 13th century from East Polynesia. But from where exactly? Why did they leave? How many were there? And where did they initially land and settle? 

A facial reconstruction of a woman buried at Wairau Bar was released in 2010. Local descendants call her "Aunty".

A facial reconstruction of a woman buried at Wairau Bar was released in 2010. Local descendants call her "Aunty".

Some answers are found a short drive away. Anderson was born in Taranaki of Ngai Tahu descent, grew up in Dunedin and went to school in Nelson, all of which makes his retirement in Blenheim seem somehow fated, as the most important archaeological site in New Zealand is only about 15 kilometres from his home. 

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The Wairau Bar, a thin strip of land at the mouth of the Wairau River, may or may not be the place where east Polynesians first pulled up their canoes and became Maori, but it is the oldest human site in New Zealand. Human remains and artefacts were discovered in 1939 and shipped south to Canterbury Museum.

Repatriation, or reburial of remains at Wairau Bar, started in 2009 after long negotiations between the museum, Ngai Tahu and the Rangitane iwi. Anderson was there only a few weeks ago for another repatriation.

This image carved into tree bark on the Chatham Islands by Moriori was bought by the Canterbury Museum in 1901. The ...

This image carved into tree bark on the Chatham Islands by Moriori was bought by the Canterbury Museum in 1901. The Moriori probably left New Zealand almost immediately after Maori settlement.

"We know quite a bit about them as a whole," he says. "We know what kind of material culture they had, their skeletal morphology, the diseases they had. Their health status, their typical longevity."

They were tall and fit. Food was everywhere: seals, eels, fish, moa and other edible birds. There would have been 20 or 30 settled sites along the east coast within decades, from Houhora in Northland down to Papatowai in Otago, with Kaikoura, Redcliffs and Rakaia River Mouth as other early sites in the South Island. Wairau Bar may have been a key site for burials and other big events at the exact centre of the country. 

The face of one buried ancestor was reconstructed in 2010 and dubbed "Aunty" by descendants, giving a human shape to the mystery of who came here and why. The population was likely to have been a cross section. "It depends on why they came. We know from historical evidence that when people were exiled, often their whole clan had to go. An extended family or clan would take everybody they could." 

Exiled? You might have assumed that colonisation was about sending your best and brightest to a new land but it is more likely that New Zealand was settled by people exiled from central east Polynesia after strife over land or food. 

Nor is there archaeological evidence that they ever went back the other way. Anderson has dismantled the story of the Polynesians as legendary seafarers. He argues that their sail technology was not as advanced as many assumed. Nor is there evidence that Polynesian voyages reached South America – pre-Columbian Americans probably sailed the other way, to Easter Island. 

That myth of Polynesian sailors as skilled and heroic, on a par with Europeans. The Vikings of the Sunrise, as someone called them. Is that not the case? 

Anderson makes a distinction. They were perhaps more heroic than many think, "because if you don't have very competent seafaring technology and yet you still pack everybody you know into a canoe and set off for some place you may or may not find, it's certainly heroic but not necessarily skilful". 

It is fair to say his view is controversial "because most people don't want to accept that argument. They prefer to accept the traditionalist argument that arose mainly in the late 19th century as a result of the establishment of the Polynesian Society, heavily backed by people like Elsdon Best, Percy Smith, Peter Buck and others who had a great investment in the idea that the Polynesian ancestors were sailors of an heroic mould with highly competent marine technology." 

But the traditionalist argument depends on one very strange idea. It implies that Maori came here with technology they subsequently lost.

"It doesn't make sense. In New Zealand you needed even more competent technology than you needed to sail in the trade winds of the tropics, technology that enabled you to sail across the wind or into the wind. Why would you ever get rid of it?"


There are "fairly polite" disagreements in academia over these matters. But Anderson sounds a little more annoyed when it is pointed out that even Te Ara, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage's online encyclopaedia, has not come around to his way of thinking.

Two likely errors leap out from Te Ara's pages on the settlement of New Zealand. One, that Polynesians sailed to South America. Two, that Polynesians almost certainly made the return voyage from New Zealand.

Remember that Te Ara is the state-funded website of New Zealand history and culture. Have its historians not caught up?

"It's not that they haven't caught up," Anderson says. "They don't want to acknowledge [it]. The people who write for Te Ara are well aware that I've been making this argument for the last 17 years and have published a number of papers on it. I find that most of my colleagues who were persuaded otherwise before I argued that it was different are still not persuaded or if they are, they won't say so."

What does the Ministry of Culture and Heritage say in response?  

"Te Ara's entry on first settlement was originally written some years ago and we will certainly consider revisions in light of new research," Chief Historian and Manager of Heritage Content, Neill Atkinson, says by email. "We regularly do this across Te Ara's wide ranging content and welcome assistance from experts like Atholl Anderson, who is the author of the most recently published synthesis of research in this area (i.e. the relevant chapters in Tangata Whenua)."

However, Atkinson adds, "it is worth noting that many of the conclusions around this area of research remain hypothetical and are recorded by us with numerous caveats".

History is in a state of flux and the public often trail behind. It reminds Anderson of the case of the Moriori. As far back as the 1920s, HD Skinner at the Otago Museum was showing that the Moriori were effectively Maori. That is gospel now but an earlier fallacy that Moriori were an "inferior" Melanesian race was taught in schools until much more recently. You might still hear it in dark corners of talkback radio.

Is there anything Anderson really wants to know that he does not yet know? Yes, plenty. He wants to know where exactly Maori came from. Genetic evidence says the original colonising population was between 400 and 600 people. Does that mean half the population of Rarotonga left at once, which would have been a huge disruption? Or was it a movement from a number of islands at around the same time? And if so, why? Climate scientists tell him there was a change of wind direction in the Pacific that made sailing to south-west Polynesia easier – including to New Zealand. 

Amazingly, some that arrived left again almost immediately. A group went east to the Chatham Islands and became the Moriori. Others went on to the Kermadec Islands, Norfolk Island, the Auckland Islands and the Sub-Antarctics. Only the Chathams colony lasted. 

You can trace the movement of stone tools across the Pacific. How many of us even know that Maori got to Australia long before James Cook? It beats those nutty fantasies about Spanish and Chinese sailors in New Zealand harbours. 

An adze was found in northern New South Wales, made from Norfolk Island basalt in a distinctive east Polynesian style. "It's the same as adzes we found when we excavated the ancient village site on Norfolk Island which dates to the late 13th century. It's the same age as the settlement of New Zealand, in other words. There were bits and pieces of material including a piece of obsidian which is almost certainly from Mayor Island [in the Bay of Plenty] and obsidian from the Kermadecs. 

"That means there were people who had been to New Zealand, had gone back to the Kermadecs and then gone a long way westwards to Norfolk Island. We know now they also got to New South Wales."

TANGATA WHENUA: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris. Bridget Williams Books, $99.99.
THE FIRST MIGRATION: MAORI ORIGINS 3000BC – AD1450  by Atholl Anderson. Bridget Williams Books, $14.99. ebook, $4.99. 


 - Stuff


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